Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel Book Poster Image
Funny, moving memoir of eccentric childhood in New York.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Information about New York City, its schools and transportation. Modeling writing down one's experiences and turning them into stories.

Positive Messages

Even if you aren't in the popular circle, you can have friends. You can accept all kinds of people. When you're an outsider, you can think of ways to fit in. If you're not at the top of the social heap when you're young, you might triumph and have successes as you get older.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Rips makes the best of her challenging social circumstances. While she longs for friends, she never expresses disdain for the eccentric adults in her life. She's very resourceful, coming up with ways to integrate into social circles. She's buoyant spirited, keeps her sense of humor, and kept a journal that turned her experiences into literature, modeling writing.

Violence
Sex

A foreign boy in middle school calls a group of girls "sloots" (sluts) while "jackrabbiting his pelvis back and forth." One girl spreads a rumor that Nicolaia is pregnant, though she hasn't had so much as a chaste kiss. During an elementary school party at Nicolaia's apartment, a neighbor shows up in his underwear.

Language

A foreign boy in middle school calls some girls "sloots" (sluts). One adult with a revolver promises to protect Rips against bullies and says she "will shove her boot right up their little asses." One adult greets Rips's friends at her birthday party, "I hope you princesses are having a f--king good time." One girl says "motherf----r."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

No underage drinking, but adult characters are frequently drinking -- sneaking drinks from flask or pouring themselves gin. In middle school, a group of boys are "stoners," described as reeking of marijuana and falling asleep in class.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel is a memoir, written by 17-year-old Nicolaia Rips about her childhood in New York City's famed Chelsea Hotel, home to artists and eccentrics. (She's now just 18.) Referenced in songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the Chelsea is notoriously associated with cultural icons such as Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious, and Dylan Thomas, who fell into a fatal coma there. In short, it's not the sort of place you'd expect to see a young child in the hall innocently playing with her hamster. The book, written for adults, works as a young-adult book since it's a coming-of-age story focused on Rips's elementary and middle school years, with Rips as perennial outsider. Though there's no underage drinking or sex, adults drink and curse, a babysitter who's probably a female escort offers 10-year-old Rips champagne, and a gay civil rights activist shows Rips the pistol she's packing, offering to protect her from bullies. Throughout, Rips maintains a wry, buoyant attitude as she navigates her unusual life.

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What's the story?

TRYING TO FLOAT: COMING OF AGE IN THE CHELSEA HOTEL is the story of author Nicolaia Rips, who was raised in New York City's Chelsea Hotel in the company of artists and eccentrics. With her parents focused more on sitting in cafes and swilling gin than planning kids' birthday parties, Rips has to chart her own path. In elementary school, she's far outside the social stream and often lonely. In middle school, she survives by making other offbeat friends. The book ends triumphantly with her acceptance into New York City's premiere arts high school, and we know this savvy writer will end up on top.

Is it any good?

This funny, touching memoir of a child raised in an adult world is was written by the author when still a teen (as she still is), and narrated with a tart wit and clever turn of phrase. Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel is told in short, punchy chapters structured as vignettes with recurring characters and themes that showcase Rips as a wry observer of odd adult behavior and her social-climbing peers. Her voice is as distinct as her experiences among some of New York City's most colorfully unconventional eccentrics, and though readers might suspect that she sometimes exaggerates for humor, like a younger David Sedaris, it's all in good fun.

Rips is on shakiest ground when recounting her younger years, when her point of view sounds far too adult to be believably that of a preschooler. Did her 5-year-old self really look at a friend's aunt and think she was "dreaming of a beach in Tahiti with someone other than her husband"? The book works best for young readers when she gets to middle school and the vignettes focus on her efforts to find a place in the social pecking order. While her experiences may be sophisticated and distinctly New York, young readers will find her attempts to navigate the social stream highly relatable.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the author's experiences in Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel. How was her childhood different from yours? Are there ways it was similar?

  • How does Rips deal with the social pecking order at school? How do you deal with it?

  • How did Rips turn her experiences into stories that come together to make a whole? Do you think all the details are completely true?

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